Org focuses on content, regardless of medium

Leaders of the Television Critics Assn., founded in 1978 to maintain and improve the professional standards of television criticism, don’t feel the org has undermined its mission in accommodating the explosion of online television critique writing.

Instead of dismissing online pubs outright, TCA evaluates whether they have “the same ethical outlook that we hope traditional print newspapers do,” according to outgoing TCA president Rob Owen, TV editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“Are (applicants) writing about television in a professional manner?” adds Susan Young, staff writer for the Oakland Tribune and TCA’s membership coordinator. “That’s what’s important.”

Young says there’s a responsibility to admit only qualified critics, given the level of TV talent and executives that make themselves available to journalists at the semiannual tour.

“TCA has set a professional bar,” Young notes.

Though the board members do recall an initial period of hesitancy — “My guess is … it was simple fear of change,” Owen says — TCA began admitting online writers in the late 1990s, soon after the Web kicked into high gear.

Neither members Michael Ausiello, senior writer for TVGuide.com, nor Rick Porter, a writer for Zap2it.com (a division of Tribune Media Services), found a cyberspace base to be a hindrance to joining TCA.

“It was more that TCA had (about) 10 members from TV Guide when I applied,” remembers Ausiello, who now also writes a column for TV Guide’s magazine edition. “Once we pared that down, (joining as an online writer) wasn’t a problem.”

TCA’s 200-plus members have perks. For example, they don’t need to make countless calls to networks for daily admittance to TCA press tours.

And as Porter points out, TCA membership provides credibility in dealing with networks and publicists, and offers access to panel transcripts and other exclusive information on the TCA website.

In the meantime, veteran TCA members haven’t sat idly by while newer, Web-based journalists file online during the tour. On the TCA home page alone, there are links to approximately 60 member blogs.

Freedom to write long (or short)

But people still wonder if the fact that anyone with access to a computer can blog about TV has eliminated thoughtful, lengthier reviews of TV programs. Ausiello observes, “People’s attention spans are shorter” and many viewers “are looking for an easy, breezy read.”

While it may be harder to find the true stalwarts of TV criticism, it can also be said that in a world with shrinking page counts for printed publications, online criticism offers writers the potential of unlimited space for both breadth and depth.

“There are certain shows we talk about more than others,” Porter says, “but when fall rolls around, we review every new show that comes down the pike.”

All this being said, the TCA hasn’t surrendered the ability to reject applicants. Scott Huver, West Coast bureau chief of Hollywood.com, was turned down for TCA membership last year.

“Our TV coverage was relatively new then,” says Huver, who plans on applying again after the current tour concludes.

Huver theorizes that as technology continues to advance, TCA may have to again revisit and amend its bylaws, because many online news sources are now incorporating video into their websites.

“The networks and TCA are going to have to start looking at how they (define) each outlet,” Huver says.

In the end, legitimate and professional journalists shouldn’t have a problem finding a way into TCA — or at least the tour. Partygoers wanting in at the network all-star parties, however, need not apply. Young heartily chuckles that if a writer’s only contribution is “‘I saw Paris (Hilton) the other night! Here are my photos!’ … Well, they’re not getting into TCA.”

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